Saturday, July 30, 2011

Back To Britain - Part 7; St. Ives



As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives,

Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

The answer to this 18th century riddle is apparently 2,801 wives, sacks, cats and kits. The alternative answer is the guy went crazy en route to St Ives and jumped off a cliff.

St Ives, to the uninitiated is about as far south west as you can go without flying to the Isles of Scilly. It's on the far side of Cornwall which has always been a place apart.

To me there are two St. Ives. There is the place my parents took me on holiday as a kid with its teeming streets and brick-a-brack shops. They found a white villa nearby for a good rate which beat the usual remove caravans with backed up toilets that they usually stumbled on, so as we could spend the week on a distant farm, gagging on the smell of cow manure.

The villa was a step up but it's hard not to look back on those days without a sense of shame. Granted this was the 1970s but was there really a humane case for skimping on the hair cuts and for dressing me in bright orange sweaters from the jumble sale and chequered brown flaired trousers. It's fine to look like there's a giant fuzzy microphone on your head if you are in the Jackson 5 but I wasn't even black, although I was probably blacker than Michael Jackson in his later days.

I don't remember so much about St Ives as we spent most of the time on the same beach. We ate Cornish pasties that had the texture of grit and contained nefarious translucent gray material. They were a locally distinctive food, developed for tin miners back in the day.

It wasn't until I was half way grown up, until I'd ditched the orange sweaters and got a haircut that I realized there was another side to St Ives, away from the tourists, who are known contemptuously by the locals who take their money as 'grockles'.

Far from the madding crowds, there are lonely whitewashed homes that look out on empty harbors and backwaters of briney sand. There are streets where artists quietly work their magic under skies that had a mere wisp of the Mediterranean on summer days. There's the Tate Gallery, austere with its white art deco lines over an empty beach ringed with palmed trees. St Ives had beautiful vistas away from those tourists and wives and cats.



It all started with Alfred Wallis, a fisherman who painted boats in a naive but organically inspired way sans perspective. In 1928, a few years after he had started painting, Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood came to St. Ives and established an artist colony. They discovered Wallis and celebrated his direct approach to image-making, which is somewhat Van Goch-like in its directness.

Wallace was feted by the postmodernist. I have an image in my mind's eye of this rustic fisherman being taken to receptions in London and feeling out of his depth.

But Wallace was true to his roots and died in abject poverty. And that sums up St Ives, a mixture of the traditional and the artistic, a strange and beautiful hybrid on the lonely and high cliffs of Cornwall.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Back to Britain Part 6: The Pembrokeshire Coast


The sixth form trip to the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales promised to be a bit different. To be fair when the teacher taking the trip was Mr. L, known to everybody else as Moss Chops, due to his unkempt beard, it was bound to be a bit different.


To understand Moss Chops’ appearance, think Gimli in the Lord of the Rings; his personality was a different matter altogether. Also Moss Chops rather neatly escapsulated all of those teacher stereotypes from hell; corduroy jackets with arm patches, chunky cable knit sweaters and an after shave that was a pungent mix of body odor and stale coffee.

And this wasn’t a one day trip; here’s a castle; look at the arrow holes; let’s fill in a worksheet; sorted.

Nope this was a week of hard walking with backpacks, tents and a minimum of preparation.

So we jumped on a mini bus and before we knew it we were setting up tents under the dreaming spires of Milford Haven oil terminal. Moss Chops wanted to go to the pub and while we were all under age, he decided to handpick a few of us who looked like we were capable of growing facial hair to head to the local boozer. Moss Chops looked somewhat disenchanted when I ordered wine, so hastily I changed my order to beer.

The first day of walking, at least 10 miles over the cliffs, proved to be a shock to the system. Moss Chops had ordered some bulk surplus rucksacks that lacked waist belts and chafed at our shoulders. As the temperatures soared and the backpacks became heavier, we started to wonder if we would survive the experience at all, let along complete 110 miles.



We camped on some remote cliffs near St Anne’s head where there were no washrooms. We had an earth fight in which Moss Chops succeeded in hitting me on the head with a large stone.

As the days went by, I became more and more conscious that Moss Chops appeared to hate me. I can’t say I blamed him. At that stage I did a lot of wisecracking and acted in a precocious manner. I would have probably hurled a rock at my 16-year-old self.

But admiration for a Tornado bomber as it soared low over the cliffs, failed to endear me to him.

“Evil killing machine,” he muttered as he trudged down the path.

I earned his permanent enmity by suggesting his unwavering loyalty for the regimes of Eastern Europe might be misplaced and nobody wanted to live under Communism in gray tower blocks, driving around in rickety Trabants and waiting for four hours for a sausage on the days they weren’t arrested for thought crimes.

Moss Chops bad mouthed me to my pal Kevin, who he made clear he preferred, but at least he kept me on the drinking list, even after I described his friend’s pub as a “hovel.”

Of course there were other distractions; Eales, for example, was the captain of the school football team and an erstwhile all round athlete now fighting a losing battle against weight. Two days on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and he was whining about blisters and calling his mother. Eales went home.

But we trudged on, up cliffs and down into valleys. When we had the energy we lost ourselves in the seascape and the beauty of the place. But most days we struggled to survive.

I’ve never felt such a feeling of accomplishment as the day we walked down the main street of a small town somewhere near Cardigan. We had blisters but we were transformed. And there was something sad about the fact our fellowship seemed to be at an end.

That fellowship never extended to Moss Chops. When we got back to school, he called me into his office one day and gave me a lecture about being cynical.

Superficially, it appeared to be about his friend’s “hovel” in Newport. But I know he was really taking me to task for undermining his Stalinist dream and for showing enthusiasm for the supersonic jets of the Royal Air Force.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Back to Britain - part 4: Swindon


I don't intend to visit Swindon when I return to the UK, but I think most Americans should be forced to drive round Swindon - for the hell of it and to boost the entertainment industry.

That's because Swindon in Wiltshire is home to the so-called "Magic Roundabout," which is actually a series of five mini roundabouts. The first time I encountered it I had only recently learned to drive and almost had a fit.

Americans tend to get freaked out by one roundabout as they are not very common round these parts. Add to the equation the fact you are driving on the left side of the road and going clockwise round the traffic island and this could be a recipe for panic. Whoever designed the Magic Roundabout probably didn't like Americans much.

According to Wikipedia, In February 2009 artist/filmmaker Tom White completed the short experimental film, Swindon Roundabouts. The film "consists of long hypnotic shots of the roundabout and its surrounding area collaged with interviews of local residents and an unsettling soundtrack. The film is intended as a homage to the late Frank Blackmore, inventor of the mini-roundabout," and general American hater.

I'd like to believe Tom White has since got a life but what are the chances really?

I always tried to avoid Swindon even though it was close to my home because it was so ugly and annoying.

But when I landed a summer job in the college recess as a mobile hot dog seller, I had little choice but to go there.

The hot dog company was a winning enterprize run by a man called Sleazy Keith - I have no idea what his real name was - who had made himself a millionaire on the backs of gullible students.

In a rickety Mastro van I would head over the hills and down into Swindon. On one particular night the van got stuck in second gear. As I inched through the bad part of Swindon (that would be all of it) with a high pitched whine coming from the engine, I became conscious this was the red light district and I risked being accused of curb crawling in a hot dog van because I couldn't get the accursed thing to speed up.

My rather classy training manager had told me during the induction it was his habit to give free hot dogs to the hookers, if they did something or other for his hot dog. I didn't ask for details.

But I got to a concrete parking lot without event (unlike the reversing problem I had in Worcester that caused bumper-maggeddon). I'd then light up the greasy old fat and get some burgers and hot dogs ready for the influx from the nightclubs when everyone became intoxicated enough to think my food was edible.

Trouble came in the form of Rude Girl in her pretty yellow party dress.

"Just get me a hot dog you horrible little man."

"Yes maam. I must say your dress is rather radiant tonight."

"Oh fack off and give me more mustard."

"Um this tube is rather a struggle I must say maam."

There was a sudden release as the mustard shot all over her new frock.

"Agggghhhhh.... look what you've done."

"At least it's yellow maam. Nobody will notice unless, well..."

Such was a day in the life of the bustling metropolis that is Swindon. Later that night Furtive Man came along and whispered: "Do you know where the whores are?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't catch that."

"The wh, wh  whores,"

"Again, sir."

"The whores."

"Oh," I exclaimed in the earshot of the line that had formed. "You'd like to know where you can find the whores. No idea, sir. Although there's this girl in a mustard yellow dress.."

I'd head home in the early hours, my van rattling and shaking over the hills; at least that wason  the nightswhen  I didn't kill the battery and have to get my dad to fetch me, rather unwillingly.

Then at the end of the week, when I had raccoon rings under my eyes from all the late nights, Dodgy Keith would hand me a check for about $150.

"Is that is. For five nights a week?'

"You appear to have been eating your profits," he'd inform me.

Keith would promise me if I worked hard I could be like Jockie, a wheezing Scotsman who had a lucrative pitch by the cattle market. He made about $500 a week.

Jockie was flushed, overweight and choleric. He looked like he ate his profits, too. I figured he's only be around for another couple of years and his cattle market pitch might be all mine.

But who was I kidding? I saw through Dodgy Keith and the frightening gray flannel pants he wore in all weathers, his over shiny shoes and his top of the line Ford Granada with velvet seats and electric windows.

"Nope, Keith. I've been offered a 9-5 office job that doesn't involve going anywhere near Swindon. Thanks but, no thanks."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Back to Britain - Part 3 - Ullswater



I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


I've heard it described as a heat wave; I've also heard it called summer in Virginia.

On these days when the heat hangs heavy on the concrete freeways and every time I get out of the car I feel I have been mugged and dragged across the parking lot under the armpit of a 300 pound Sumo wrestler, I think of England, and the Lake District in particular.

The Lake District is perhaps the most beautiful place in England but it can also be the most fickle. In the tourist trap villages choked with cars in the summer the Lakes can feel kitsch as if their beauty has been their undoing. Also as the wettest place in England you can visit the area for a week and find the reticent peaks shrouded in low cloud for the whole time.

Ullswater is said to be the most beautiful of the lakes, bearing comparisions with Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Wordsworth certainly thought so when, inspired by a profusion of daffodils by the lake, he wrote his famous poem of the same name.

The secret to the Lake District is to get away from the honey pot villages and up onto the vast empty fells, although as I found once when climbing the hills above Ullswater, the exertion can test those knees. Climb a thousands meters and you are in a different world of high grantite hills and foreboding peaks, with what once seemed to be a vast lake now a mere gray sliver below you, like a narrow pewter mirror that captures the fleeting clouds.

On days like today I miss the shrill summer breezes of Lakeland and the freshness of those fells, even on the warmist of days. But there's something melancholy about the Lake District too.

In the early 19th Century William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived here around Keswick, writing some of the most famous verses of the romantic age. But they were to fall out and Coleridge's life became beset by maritial problems and drug abuse.

I have mixed memories of the Lake District too, of two relationships that unravelled on vacation here, of days that promised dizzy climbs only to be beset by driving rain, or beautiful vistas that never quite materialized the closer you got to them.

The idealism of the Romantic poets was ultimately flawed. Daffodils is a deeper poem that it seems to be on the surface. Wordsworth writes of his vacant and pensive mood.

The cold waters of these lakes run very deep indeed. And with the heat index hitting 118 today, I have an unfulfilled longing to swim in them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back to Britain - Part 2 - the White Cliffs of Dover



There’ll be bluebirds over

The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow
Just you wait and see



The White Cliffs of Dover are synonymous with England and the sense of relief of those Spitfire pilots who saw them loom out of the blue after engaging the Luftwaffe or the souls huddled on boats escaping Dunkirk, must have been palpable.


Admittedly whenever I have seen them the White Cliffs of Dover were slightly grey and slightly dirty and not as sparking as in our imaginations, scarred by ferry terminals and other industrial installations. The Seven Sisters in Sussex are considerably more majestic.

During a childhood holiday in Kent I remember the forbidding gray terraces, the clouds and the drizzle as I shivered through a bout of tonsillitis. My parents were underwhelmed by Kent which makes it all the more ironic that they recently moved here. I recall the bulk of Dover Castle and a shell temple, one of the few interesting things they found to do on this holiday.

In more recent time I took a late ferry from Dover. The town seemed down at heel and full of ragged asylum seekers. It seemed rather ironic that a nation that had repulsed the Nazi invasion on those long days of vapor trails and death over the eggshell blue skies of Kent, had allowed a European invasion thanks to the European Union.


If I have time I’ll go back to the white cliffs of Dover.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Back to Britain - part 1; the Norfolk Broads


For the next couple of weeks I'll be posting quick blogs on some of my favorite places in preparation for my visit to Britain in August.

They're not all places I'll have time to visit as I'll probably spend three weeks slumped over a pint in a murky London pub getting all misty eyed over the existence of warm beer.

Maybe I'll visit the Norfolk Broads; maybe not. The Norfolk Broads are about 117 square miles, mostly in Norfolk, of navigational waterways.

I was somewhat freaked out to Google them up and to pull up the Norfolk County Council website with the tourism motto "a time to explore," mainly because I broke this world shattering exclusive story and then had to hang out in the market place at Norwich (Narrrrwich to the locals) getting disinterested people to give their comments on the new motto and illustration.

These kind of exercises are never easy but, on reflection, it was easier than getting the good people of Barking to comment on genetic modification.

"What the fack, mate?"

So now that chilly day when we boarded a rather incongruously shaped Mississippi paddle steamer from Wroxham to see the broads, seems like a very different lifetime.We had seen all the rich pictures of windmills and lilly pads, but the Broad seemed rather gray and bleak. The photographs were all deeply uninspiring. Why had we moved to Norfolk?



Their attraction has always been somewhat elusive, requiring a love of remote and often chilly places.

Then there were boat trips with the former inlaws; the former FIL directing all the boat traffic in his cable knit that made him look like a gigantic sheep in a science experiment and the former MIL insisting we sit outside the hotel with an icy wind racing round our underpants so as she could smoke. Ah happy days.

I attempted to pilot a boat at Potter Heigham, but accidentally put it in reverse, smashing into two other boats and a pier. All attempts to dislodge the former in-laws into freezing water proved fruitless. There's a video on YouTube describing "two muppets" trying to get under the bridge at Potter Heigham; this sums up the abilities of many Broads boaters who show up from London having never operated anything more difficult that a paddle boat in Hyde Park.

There's something unedifying about the squat little boats that plough their trade from functional waterside pubs reeking of diesel, but the Broads do have an allure if you know where to look. You can still see a few wherries under sail, like feluccas on a chilly Nile. The days when reed workers lived in remote dragonfly filled cottages and the waterways were choked with lily pads are long gone, but the Broads still have an aura.



To drive across the Acle Straight under a leaden sky and to and see the bleak landscape unfold, scattered with ruined wind pumps and criss crossed with quick silver ditches is to feel as lonely as you ever will on this planet, even though there are far vaster wildernesses.

And at How Hill where there's a visitor center the Broads of so many childhood dreams still survive under the vast Norfolk skies. Here there are antique wind pumps, thatched cottages and the only reed cutter on the Broads. If you picnic here on a sunny day all seems right with the world, until you realize there's a big bad world beyond this little patch of Swallows and Amazons paradise and somewhere, someone is stubbing out a cigarette and cackling into the teeth of an easterly wind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Britain is Making the wrong kind of headlines


I often complain that Britain seldom makes headlines much in the USA, although it makes headlines a lot more often than Belgium.


I have been eating my words this week as the News International scandal has been erupting all over the US networks.

I get a bit uncomfortable when the three words “British, journalist and ethics” are put together but there’s no denying that when it comes to sleaze the British tabloids lead the way. While papers such as the National Inquirer caught up, apparently they were only able to plumb those murky depths by importing a load of British hacks.

For me the golden age of tabloid sleaze remains the 1980s when the Sun was edited by Kelvin McKenzie, every employee’s worst nightmare. McKenzie was infamous for the tirades he unleashed on unfortunate employees and for his sensitive headlines such as “Gotcha” when a British submarine sunk an Argentinian battleship with the loss of hundreds of lives.

When McKenzine became fed up with a subordinate editor, nicknamed the “human sponge” he printed his personal phone number in the paper and urged angry readers to call. Apparently he once told a woman who called up to complain she was banned from reading the newspaper and arranged for someone to stop her deliveries.

In the end McKenzie came unstuck by libeling Elton John, who is apparently rather wealthy and understandably resented a story about a boy scout. He also angered half of the population of Liverpool over the Hillsborough football disaster coverage.

After the Sun, McKenzie was never quite as cocksure. He was a Roman emperor without his purple cloak. He was a bit like the playground bully who is unexpectedly knocked to the ground by the small kid he’s spent the last two years picking on.

The same could be said of the News of the World, the downmarket Sunday tabloid that closed suddenly last weekend, brought to its knees by the phone tapping scandal.

Even Rupert Murdoch, the all powerful ruthless media mogul, is looking his age as his empire makes all the wrong headlines, and appears a somewhat humbled shadow of his bullish former self.

I won’t miss the News of the World but it will be strange to return to Britain next month and to find it gone. The newspaper wasn’t always the mix of affairs and breasts, and reporters digging up dirt undercover dressed as sheiks, that it became. When it started life in 1847 it was a rather dutiful broadsheet, mentioned as a fabric of British life by George Orwell.

Its curious motto was "All human life is there,” although in recent years this seems to have been narrowed to all pond life.

The life of a tabloid is a strange this because I always thought it would be an irresponsible but a fun ride. Yet when I worked a few shifts on the Sun, I found the place lifeless and laden with fear.

Then, for a number of years, I worked late shifts on The Sunday Times, always feeling a sense of dread as I made my way into Fortress Wapping, past the rapine features of Murdoch in the hall, to a room where people moved around but seldom talked. Where I’d sit for hours in silence, hearing the humming of the print works, wading through tortuous business news. Nobody would talk, the only correspondence would come from terse emails.

But then occasionally a door would creak and a short little woman would emerge from a glass cubicle to scream at me, before retreating. I never found out her name.

It was strange to see a video of the gates of Fortress Wapping swinging open last Saturday as News of the World staff walked out for the last time, and the undead blinked and squinted into the bright lights. I’m not sure if their tabloid existence was ever a lifestyle because it felt more like a form of dying.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Driven to Distraction and Round the Bend


On another day closer to the lunatic asylum, my very good friend from AAA informed me my car was finally repaired and it would cost a me a mere $1,900 to be again driving on the open highway a dream vehicle that, I recently discovered in a poll of 33 small cars was ranked number 33.

The news made me choke due to the box of mints I was forced to swallow in the absence of something stronger РCr̬me de Menthe in the cup I used for my tooth brush, perhaps,

“Sure this isn’t AA,” I spluttered, mints flying across the room and hitting unsuspecting colleagues. “I could use your services.”

The car fiasco proved to be such a Catch 22 that I considered just junking it and getting something else. But every time I landed nervously on a parking lot, I got collared by a representative who would come sprinting out of his representative box like a greyhound from a cage and try to get me to sign a deal for a car I had never seen before asking my name. I got to the stage of driving by the car lot slowly, leaving the engine running and sprinting back into my car before the rep. showed up or prowling the parking lots at night, a practice that carries its own peculiar risks.

So after a day or two of dithering I found myself agreeing to the repairing of all the twisted valves caused by the shattered timing belt, that was replaced about a year ago because I didn’t want it to shatter and twist all my valves.

Twisted valves is never a pleasant topic of conversation, especially if this information is imparted by an old lady while you are waiting at the doctor’s surgery flicking through some of the arcane magazines they have there. Baku Weaver’s World – that kind of thing.

I thought of getting heavy with my mechanic but he’s kind of heavy anyway so I guess I’ll slip away quietly and find another mechanic and stop boasting to people about how I’ve found a guy who’ll fix my car on the cheap.


Sadly I have been driving a rented Toyota for a week and notwithstanding some of those telltale signs of a rental car (why do people who rent cars see fit to stub out cigarettes on the seat?), it has been so great to drive a car that’s Japanese and has no discernible American parts. I know there are a few worrying stories about Toyotas and gas pedals but this Corolla seriously rocks. It even has electric windows.

Friday, July 8, 2011

crime seen ... bad smell of dog



The move is in full swing but I'm not convinced Zara's totally on board with the prospect of long, lazy days in the dreamy pastures of the inner city.

Here's her take on the new place "crime seen, bad doors, bad neiberhood, bad something I can't make out, bad smell of dog - put them all together and theeft."

At least those spelling lessons I gave her late into the night worked out well.

OK it didn't go swimmingly at first, what with those two guys wearing red shirts saying they liked the inside of our house, the police outside the party next door and the evidence that the lock had been jemmied.

By day two we were so paranoid we half expected a deranged maniac in a home knit sweater to come to the door clutching a cake full of nails screaming; "Welcome to the bad neiberhood."

But we were somewhat relieved to find out the party was a one off to celebrate some kind of American holiday and the damage to the door had, in fact been caused by the previous owner when he became locked out.

We were also prepared to overlook the presence of a pit in the basement, the desperate graffiti on the wall, the dried up blood, the presence of a small dog called Precious, the signs saying "We exchange cookies for crack" and the police officer who told us the incident tape was left up on a permanent basis because it cost the department too much to keep putting it up and taking it down again.

So really it's cool now. Suburbia is seriously overrated. Living in suburbia is like being dead except every one's too polite to tell you, you are a corpse. We all need a dose of urban grit in our oatmeal each morning to make us feel alive don't we?

And it's amazing how easy it is to win over a 6-year-old. As soon as it became apparent the new house was on Blue Bunny's route, all the doubts blew away like a police siren receding into the distance in a heat haze.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Weird tourism and Casey Anthony


I'd like to thank Tim Riley for using a guest post that I wrote some time ago on America's weird and wacky tourist attractions over at Life of Riles.

Sometimes the road can be long and featureless in America so we all need the odd naff tourist attraction or two to spice it up.

Talking about attractions I'm not sure how half of the country will cope now the Casey Anthony murder trial is over.

At the time of the verdict there were a lot of shocked messages on Facebook and Twitter but what can we really expect if we turn the legal process into a circus?

I tend to agree with Marnie here that Casey Anthony is a sociopath. At the same time I may be in the minority but I believe the jury reached the correct decision based on a complete lack of solid evidence. I'm sure Anthony knows what happened to her daughter but I'm not conviced she killed her. Or more accurately I'm not sure she intended to kill her.

If the prosecution had gone for a manslaughter charge rather than a murder charge with the death penalty - presumably to boost ratings - they may have achieved a more favorable result.

I also tend to agree with Jennifer that if Anthony had been black or unattractive, nobody would have cared about this case.

Other than that my thoughts on this case haven't changed much from my posting Casey Anthony - What the hell, last month.

I haven't paid much attention to this case but small snippets of information have crept into my random brain from it being on TV in the background. And now I feel I have already reached my dysfunction quota for the year.

At least until the next funny family from down south makes it big with Nancy Grace.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Stalled on the Fourth of July


Today was my first July 4 as an American citizen but I didn't have much time or inclination to be patriotic.

On Friday I made the mistake of trying out the accelerator on my American-made car and it completely lost power. As I meandered at 20 mph into a strip mall thinking it was just my luck to break down next to the worst Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood, I had plenty of time to reflect on what a heap of crap my car was and to allow myself to dream about Japanese cars or German cars, Korean cars even. And I'm talking North Korean. By now my disenchantment with American cars was complete. Had the former East Germany been within handy reach I would have kicked my way in screaming: "Give me a Trabant."

At least I was clever enough to break down within sight of the only AAA repair center for 20 miles, although I'm not sure if repair is the right word.

The next day some guy called Eric cheerfully informed me the timing belt had shattered which annoyed me no end as I had it replaced 20,000 miles ago.

Apparently the timing belts shatter all the time on this make of Chevrolet, Eric said.

"On the Chevrolet Bollocks," I thought about saying.

On yes, enthused Eric. You only have to look at these cars in the wrong way and bang - there goes another timing belt. Still cheerful he informed me it would cost me about $200 for him to take off a cover to establish whether I would need to pay another $500 for a new timing belt or about $3,000 if all the cylinders were all bent and twisted.

I'll get the call tomorrow. Being an eternal optimist my money's on bent and twisted.

I found myself annoyed that Detroit at the dawn of the 21st century is still not up to the task of manufacturing a car with a timing belt that doesn't shatter. This may have been complicated by the fact this car was actually made for Chevrolet in Korea, so I didn't even have the chance to have the compensatory thought: "It may be a heap of crap but at least it helped keep an American worker in a job."

I'm not sure if my car is a metaphor for modern day America but I find it a bit ironic that the nation that first mass produced the car now has a reputation for making vehicles that break down ever time you cough. Don't even get me started on our Ford that's already had a transmission meltdown that cost half of its value to repair.

So I didn't get to see much of July 4, not just because I was driving round parking lots staring wistfully at Japanese cars and driving off before a salesman came sprinting out to ambush me, but because we're in the process of moving house and taking bits of junk over in a halfhearted way and hanging out in furniture stores.

The furniture store experience can be extremely time consuming because my wife usually has a list of about 200 items to buy and I insist on one and we spend the next 24 hours beating out a compromise. Salesfolk don't realize this. Salesfolk like Chris with his Perry Como dress sense and big old chummy southern twang. It's amazing how the world's most placid salesman can be transformed into Jame Gumb, the psychotic killer in The Silence of the Lambs, in the space of two short hours.

Still Chris kept coming back for more. The chairs and the coffee table. And throw in the love seat - whoever came up with that expression? Sounds like something from a 70s porno movie. A different coffee table. Chris kept going away and coming back to tell us how he'd got us a special reduction on the furniture, how he'd give us a couple of feet of fabric free - and presenting us with a final bill that was far higher than anyone anticipated. Then he went back to get an even better deal that turned out to come to the same grand and unfathomable total.

More prevarication took place. Chris had to drag over a coffee table from across the store to see how it looked next to the chair. Hopefully that popping noise wasn't his back going out. Then we opted for a different design, then I lost all interest and said we should leave altogether before a compromise was ironed out which involved a sofa and the rather unpleasantly termed 'love seat' but no coffee tables whatsoever. Thus I had spent two hours beating the argument back to my starting point although if it was down to me we wouldn't even buy new furniture because we have a couple of old grease stained deck chairs.

By the time we stumbled out of that place the moon was up and we kept tripping over clumps of Chris' hair that he'd spent the afternoon pulling out.

Later it occurred to me that the new furniture probably wouldn't fit in the door anyhow and the area that we were moving to was starting to look run down and there were some ominous sounds.

"Listen. Gun shots. We've moved to the ghetto," I said.

But it turned out to be firecrackers. Apparently it was the Fourth of July.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Losing Wimbledon


It's mens final day at Wimbledon today but I had to check the BBC website to find out who's playing.

I admit Wimbledon has passed me by since moving to the USA and I'm not sure I could find tennis on ESPN on bargain basement package.

I've been estranged from Wimbledon for many years now but still recall how the popping of balls on a summer day, the sighs of the players and the line calls "fifteen - love" cracking across the afternoon, punctuated listless sunny days at home. I can't say I ever went to see the matches, ate strawberries and cream or hung out with the other fools on Henman Hill, but Wimbledon in all it's time warp glory was always there in the background.

These days I find out who's won by updates from friends on Facebook. The final is between Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, who I have heard of, and  Novak Djokovic, who has made it to world number one without me ever hearing about him. Since when did Wimbledon become dominated by dour looking guys wearing baseball caps? Many years ago probably.

Nor had I heard of the new ladies champion - Petra Kvivota, a 21-year-old from a small town in the Czech Republic.

It says a lot about Wimbledon that it still clings to the archaic name "ladies" in an era of Nike aerodynamic sports wear where the term "ladies" seems to miss the mark.

Whereas back in the day in their fine whites ladies looked like ladies; unless they looked like Billy Jean King or Martina Navratilova, of course.

I suppose in my household there was an element of sneering about some of the Americans who came over and failed to conform to the Wimbledon etiquette. But the US seemed to have better players in those days.

We all have our own perceived 'goldern era' of Wimbledon but for me it was the era of John McEnroe. For me as well as half the country McEnroe was the player we loved to hate; the quintessential American brat with a bad temper and a worse hair do, the whole country would will him to lose. His tantrums with the umpires because the stuff of legend.

And ultimately the whole country was forced to concede it would give its right arm to have a player as talented as "Super Brat."

McEnroe overlapped with the super cool Swede Bjorn Borg and there was one classic final where Swedish precision narrowly overcame raw and angry talent. Then there was another famous final in which McEnroe slugged it out with Jimmy Connors, another American great whose trademark grunt is still probably echoing around the hallowed lawns of SW19.

If the domonation of the Americans has declined at Wimbledon, the domination of the British has predictably never materialised.

But our reputation for gallant losers, who make the semis and raise expectations before crashing out, is alive and kicking. Andy Murray is the latest nearly man, although he's failed to occupy the rock star loser status given to Tim Henman.

For one thing he's Scottish, for another he doesn't look the part. Someone described his facial hair as resembling Steffi Graf's arm pit. You can't really follow that.